‘It’s about paying attention’: Evelyn Glennie on her love of metal detecting

The celebrated percussionist reveals how she finds peace

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To the uninitiated, it is a grassy field abutting a thunderously busy dual carriageway on the outskirts of Huntingdon, a market town in Cambridgeshire. But to a hopeful metal-detecting novice such as myself, this dull swath of agricultural set-aside must hold a trove of ancient treasure, a hidden store of coins and jewellery buried in the soil, awaiting discovery.

“I doubt it,” says Evelyn Glennie, switching on her metal detector. When not performing with leading orchestras or collaborating with fellow virtuosos, the celebrated Scottish percussionist likes to relax by hunting for buried objects, a hobby she discovered three years ago.

“Nothing extraordinary has been found but there has been a lot of stuff,” she says, emphasising “stuff” with a certain relish. “Things related to horses or carts or old gates, ploughs, umpteen nails of all sorts, hooks and buckles.”

She begins the hunt at the foot of a small tree, sweeping the detector around its roots. Almost immediately the device starts emitting a hopeful fusillade of beeps. “It is coming up as iron and coins,” she says, pointing at a flashing signal on the control panel. The beeps grow more excitable as she circles one particular area. Treasure! My companion stoops down and starts digging calmly with a trowel. There is nothing there.

Glennie at the drums © Rosie Matheson

Never mind: hope lives on. Glennie, 51, is proof that rare gifts can be unearthed in unlikely circumstances. Raised on an Aberdeenshire farm, she took up percussion at the age of 12. At the same time her hearing was undergoing a rapid deterioration. She is now profoundly deaf, meaning she can acoustically register sounds, but at muffled levels. A ringing telephone sounds like a crackle; she can hear speech but has to lip-read to make sense of it.

Her experience of deafness is inextricable from her musicianship. Glennie, who plays her instruments barefoot, believes that music is a tactile as well as an audio experience, a resonance that affects the whole body, as with the way one might register the booming of a kettle drum in one’s sternum. Hearing and feeling are impossible to separate.

“It’s about paying attention,” she says. “This isn’t some kind of obscure new-age thing, it’s simply about paying attention and focusing.” In conversation her habit of looking closely at the person speaking to her, lip-reading, has the effect of making every utterance seem significant.

Some of the more than 2,000 instruments in her offices © Rosie Matheson

Classically trained, she describes herself as “the world’s first full-time solo percussionist”. More than 2,000 instruments collected in her offices show the extent of her range. Housed in a two-floor unit in the industrial estate adjoining the field, they include tom-toms, tam-tams, marimbas, xylophones, timpani, a gamelan and her childhood drum kit. Downstairs, mounted on a platform, is a brutally fast-looking red MV Agusta motorbike, a relic of a previous hobby. “I haven’t had the heart to get rid of that one,” she says.


Metal detecting requires patience: it is like listening to the earth, sending off electromagnetic waves in search of echoes from the buried metal. “The pace at which you have to function is so peaceful, so slow and meticulous and your focus is on nothing else. I find that absolutely liberating,” Glennie says.


Number of views on Glennie’s Ted talk “How to Truly Listen

She looks graceful as she sweeps the device around, holding it still for a beat before moving on. But the contrasting taste for speed suggested by the motorbike also rings true.

In her professional life, Glennie is tirelessly active. She has written her own music, released numerous CDs and commissioned more than 200 pieces of music for percussion from composers. She has played with orchestras, jazz ensembles and contemporary music groups, won two Grammys and been awarded a series of decorations, including a damehood in 2007 and a Companion of Honour this year. Away from music, she has sidelines in motivational speaking and jewellery design.

She lives near Huntingdon with her partner, who gave her the metal detector as a Christmas present. “It’s something that has always been in the back of my mind, partly because I like objects,” she says.

Glennie on the hunt for metal: “The pace at which you have to function is so peaceful, so slow and meticulous” © Rosie Matheson

Metal detecting is also an excuse to be outdoors, a love of which stems from her upbringing in Scotland. “We grew a lot of the produce that we ate, from potatoes and all sorts of vegetables to milking the cow and putting it straight on to our porridge in the morning. We were pretty self-sufficient,” she says.

Her father was an amateur accordionist who stopped playing after Glennie and her two brothers were born. “As a child, I remember seeing this big black box and just pleading with him to get the accordion out to play it. He would take it out and put it on my lap but he simply would not play it. It had beautiful mother-of- pearl and deep red colours. The craftsmanship . . . ”

After her father’s death in the early 1990s, the accordion entered Glennie’s instrument collection (“It brings back memories whenever I see it”). She cut her teeth on the piano before taking up the clarinet, aged 10. But her over-strenuous efforts to play it — “I wanted to do things that were far beyond what I was capable of at that time” — caused her parents to fear it was aggravating her hearing problems. So they persuaded her to give it up.


Number of honorary doctorates Glennie has been awarded

She took up percussion on arriving at secondary school in 1977. “I remember seeing the school orchestra play when I was 12 and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is incredibly inspiring, I want to be a part of that.’”

The resources were basic but sufficient. “We had two hand-tuned timpani, a drum kit and this rickety old xylophone. But that’s enough to fuel the interest of a 12-year-old. And, of course, the lessons were free back then.” (She rues that it will be harder to unearth the next Glennie in the present era of cutbacks.)

At 15, she travelled to London to audition for a place at the Royal Academy of Music. She passed the test but was refused a place on the grounds of her hearing impairment. Furious, she insisted on a second examination. “At the end, on the spot, they said, “OK, you can start in September.’”

There was only one boy in her percussion class at school but now Glennie found herself as the only girl on the percussion course. Furthermore, her background in Scottish traditional music, where drumming is central, ill-prepared her for the academy’s hierarchic outlook. She recalls playing Bach on a marimba in the corridor once and a teacher coming up to ask her why she was bothering to do something she would never get to do in a concert. “There was no solo percussion, no jazz, Latin or improvisation,” she says.

When she announced her intention to be a solo percussionist, she was met with astonishment. “‘Where is the repertoire, who is interested in this?’” she mimics, voice going down an octave in imitation of a crusty academician. “‘How are you going to find the people who will spend the time writing pieces for percussion?’ But it was already happening in my head.”

Bloody-mindedness was needed, not just ability. “My life was completely and utterly focused on that goal,” she says, explaining how she wrote to every composer she could to generate works for percussion. “So that launched you into the commissioning aspect. How do you get the money? How are you going to get the equipment from A to B?”


Number of drummers led by Glennie at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony

Winning the Shell/London Symphony Orchestra scholarship prize in 1984, worth £3,000, helped set her on the path to becoming a solo percussionist. Her philosophy of sound has also spurred her on, fuelling an interest in many types of music, from western repertoire to a recent concert in Glasgow with Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu. She has ambitions to create a double concerto for a rapper and percussion. Eminem, who she admires greatly, would be the dream choice. “But there are layers of people [to get past] there,” she says.

Among her numerous forthcoming activities is a project working with dementia sufferers. “That will take me out of my comfort zone,” she says, sounding delighted at the prospect. “We know that playing some song or piece of music can ignite something in a person. Can they be brought out by sound or resonance, something from their childhood? It could be a sleigh bell, a shop bell or the feeling of a tractor passing by.”


Meanwhile, our attempt to dredge up the past in the field is proving unsuccessful. Glennie’s metal detector beeps from time to time — she would like manufacturers to produce a vibrating one, like a divining rod — and each time the trowel digs away to reveal nothing. But treasure of a different kind glints when I ask about her admiration for Kate Bush. Glennie, it transpires, had lunch with the enigmatic singer-songwriter only the previous week. “She is absolutely delightful, I have to say,” she says. “Such a down-to-earth person, who knows how to get the best out of herself. I think that a lot of people who have been in the profession for a long time, now and then they are in transition or they want to be curious about other creative possibilities.”


The year Alexander Graham Bell invented the metal detector

Just as I wonder if I have stumbled upon the scoop of a Glennie-Bush collaboration, the glimmer of gold disappears. “That’s that really. There’s no more I can say about that.”

Suddenly the detector starts beeping. Glennie excavates the spot near a nondescript shrub with her trowel. Traffic roars down the four lanes of the A14. Tension mounts. We are in luck! She produces a large bent nail from the ground. Never have I been so thrilled by a piece of agricultural detritus.

“I know it’s not very exciting to find a nail, but this is something you don’t want to be in the ground,” Glennie says, sounding very much the farmer’s daughter.

“You really learn about patience living on a farm,” she laughs. “You can’t just expect things to happen. I always believe that things do happen for a reason. Let it go, let it be and it will come around if it is meant to be,” she says, switching off the metal detector. 

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic

Photographs: Rosie Matheson

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